Hopes for climate treaty set back by G20's weasel words

World further from agreement than two years ago

Far from being at the heart of last week's London summit, the looming climate crisis was relegated to a brief, vague and weaselly-worded afterthought at the very end of the communiqué. This has had an immediate dampening effect on negotiations on a new treaty supposed to be agreed at a vital meeting in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

Participants in the negotiations – now under way in Bonn – say that, partly as a result, they are now further from reaching agreement than they were towards the end of George Bush's presidency, despite the new energy and commitment brought to environmental matters by the Obama administration. Rich and poor countries now appear to be further apart than at the end of 2007, when the former president was still trying to obstruct progress.

It was not supposed to be like this. Gordon Brown and the other leaders – with the notable, if eccentric, exception of Silvio Berlusconi – have long been verbally signed up to "low carbon growth" as the best way out of the recession, since it promises more jobs and more opportunities for innovation than business as usual. Indeed, a new study by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst shows that investing in the green economy creates nearly four times as many jobs as traditional investment.

They also now realise the urgency of tackling global warming. "We are at a last opportunity moment," one of Britain's top negotiators told a private meeting last week." Only a few weeks remain, he explained, in which to ensure that the vast sums of money being devoted to the stimulus were spent on a green new deal, rather than ensuring that the world was locked in to more high-carbon growth.

Yet, in the event, climate change and the need for a "green recovery" only made the 27th and 28th paragraphs of the 29-paragraph communiqué. Language, already weak in the final draft, was watered down even further by the leaders on Thursday.

The main reason was that China and other developing countries refused to agree to anything that might pre-empt the negotiations on the new climate treaty. The result was not just a lost opportunity to put some political momentum behind the talks in Bonn – the first of four negotiating sessions leading to the Copenhagen meeting – but it actually set the talks back.

Developing countries have also been disillusioned by how little of the stimulus money has so far been devoted to green investment, despite all the rhetoric: only 7 per cent of Britain's package, for example, is being spent on it. Though many of the biggest – such as China, India and Mexico – are ready to take their own measures, they are reluctant to commit to them when richer nations are doing so little.

The deadlock is made worse because developed countries have also failed to make good on promises made at the end of 2007 to set aside money to help poorer countries tackle climate change and adjust to its effects.

Some participants hope that today's US-EU summit in Prague may yet make up for the failings of the G20 by producing a statement strong enough to regenerate momentum. But no one is holding their breath.